2018-02-07 / Featured / Front Page

County boards splinter, feud over budget

School Board scoffs at proposed tax cut: ‘Very troubling’

Dianne Smith, the School Board’s Clover Hill District representative, addresses citizens and school officials during a budget meeting last week. 
JAMES HASKINS Dianne Smith, the School Board’s Clover Hill District representative, addresses citizens and school officials during a budget meeting last week. JAMES HASKINS Amid a shifting political landscape, diverging fiscal priorities have created a rift between the county’s two elected bodies – the Board of Supervisors and the School Board.

The two boards are engaged in increasingly contentious discussions about the county’s fiscal year 2019 budget – specifically, how much of it should be allocated to the school system – and hard feelings have begun to surface publicly over the past few weeks.

At a School Board work session last month, Midlothian District representative Javaid Siddiqi noted he had heard from several of his constituents about the Board of Supervisors’ plan to cut the county’s real estate tax rate by 1 cent, and questioned the wisdom of such a move.

“The fact that we are even considering anything that’s going to reduce revenues is very troubling,” Siddiqi said. “I think about all the things we’re doing and the growing shift of our county – the poverty that we’re grappling with. I’m not sure some of our leaders understand what’s really happening in our schools.”

Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick responded prior to his board’s unanimous Jan. 24 vote to advertise a 1-cent reduction in the real estate tax rate, suggesting the School Board has spent “huge sums of money” on initiatives that don’t directly impact the classroom.

“In my opinion, our schools are adequately funded,” he said. “We don’t have a funding issue. We have a spending and priority issue.”

Such comments are atypical for the two boards, which in recent years have tended to defer – at least in public – to the other’s legal authority and responsibilities. As Chesterfield’s taxing authority, the Board of Supervisors decides how much local funding is allocated to the county government and school system. The School Board determines how to spend the school system’s share of that money.

Supervisors also have been careful not to do or say anything that could allow their political opponents to paint them as less than fully supportive of public education, which was identified as the top citizen priority last year in the county’s Blueprint Chesterfield survey.

That’s especially meaningful in the current climate, with newly energized Democrats hoping to flip at least two of the four Republican held seats and gain control of the Board of Supervisors in November 2019.

“Chesterfield’s political discourse has been altered,” longtime Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth said. “These [Democrats] are not going away in the next year or two. They intend to mount serious campaigns in all local elections now. They are looking at each of these districts: ‘Where do we have a chance where we can actually win?’”

How the changing political environment will impact local issues – such as funding for education – remains to be seen.

Last fall, the Board of Supervisors decided to revamp the annual budget process and make the school system compete for funding with other priorities, such as public safety, transportation and programs for the county’s senior population.

Over the past seven fiscal years, 44.3 percent of all new county tax dollars have been allocated to the school system. That’s twice as much as the three public safety agencies – police, Fire and EMS and sheriff – have received during that period.

As County Administrator Joe Casey outlined in an Oct. 31 letter to Superintendent James Lane, the budget now is being built “in a more incremental manner” that allows all community priorities to be considered equally by the board.

County funding for the school system currently is projected to grow by about $8 million during fiscal year 2019, which begins July 1, 2018. That is $2 million less than the increase between fiscal years 2017 and 2018.

The increase to the school system’s baseline budget accommodates a 2 percent salary increase for all school employees, an 8 percent increase in the school system’s share of employee health care costs and $7 million to partially insource custodial services following a failed outsourcing program.

Lane’s proposed budget for FY19 includes $25 million in additional spending, which represents an increase of 3 percent per student, but it also contains several million dollars’ worth of “unfunded priorities” – among them, $3.5 million for major facility maintenance, $1.6 million for additional teaching positions to reduce pupil-teacher ratios and $87,150 per school to “support social and emotional needs of a diverse student population.”

“It seems to me inconsistent with the results we’ve seen from Blueprint Chesterfield, which clearly made it known this community puts education as priority No. 1. These numbers don’t seem to reflect that,” School Board Chairman John Erbach said.

Christina Berta, the school system’s chief financial officer, told the School Board recently that there is a projected funding shortfall of $38.4 million over the final four years of the schools’ current FY19-23 spending plan.

The Board of Supervisors and School Board jointly adopted a five-year planning concept as a way to rebuild the school system from recession-era budget cuts gradually over time.

“I think that’s the crux of all of this – we have needs and we have a 5-year plan that both boards agreed were priorities for this community. The public agreed they were priorities for our schools,” said Carrie Coyner, who represents the Bermuda District on the School Board. “Now it’s like, ‘Well … maybe they’re not priorities.’ The whole reason we went with a 5-year plan is so there was some certainty for us in planning and there were no surprises for them, which both are important. Now we’re back to almost every year it’s a surprise whether you get money or not.”

County supervisors, meanwhile, insist they’ve restored the school system’s local funding to where it was prior to the recession.

According to Matt Harris, the county’s budget director, the schools’ operating budget has increased by $131 million, or about 25 percent, between FY13 and FY19, at a period when student enrollment growth has been “relatively subdued.”

That equates to about a $2,000 per-student increase over that period, Harris said.

“That is substantial investment,” Clover Hill District Supervisor Chris Winslow added.

Winslow noted that the increased school funding has “started to show some dividends,” including all county schools being accredited by the state, improvement in four-year graduation rates and shrinking achievement gaps for minority students.

He also pointed out that Chesterfield leads neighboring Henrico and Hanover on 30 of the 34 steps in the salary scale for teachers.

The Board of Supervisors has been less supportive, however, of other School Board initiatives, particularly its plans to change school start times and launch an Early College Academy program.

“There is a major difference in funding needs versus wants,” Elswick said.

“At some point in time, I think we have to recognize this board is dedicated to the excellent educational system we have,” Midlothian District Supervisor Leslie Haley added. “However, it’s not our job to set priorities for [the School Board].”

That message failed to resonate with citizens who contacted the supervisors in January and asked them to allocate an additional $3.5 million to the school system instead of cutting the tax rate.

Sensing public support for increased education funding, Siddiqi has suggested that instead of sending a budget to the Board of Supervisors that meets the county’s funding target, the School Board should adopt a budget that outlines the school system’s needs and let the supervisors decide what to fund.

The School Board is expected to approve its FY19 budget on Feb. 12.

“I think with last year’s budget – and Dianne [Smith] as chair helped shepherd us through the process with a new superintendent – we for the first time in years came to the table with a balanced budget. I’m starting to question whether that’s the right strategy as a board,” Siddiqi said.

Added Smith: “We thought last year about doing a needs-based budget. We wanted to play fair, do due diligence, so we did a balanced budget. We’re now seeing the outcome.” ¦

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